In the clean-up efforts following the devastation of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, many undocumented workers and homeless people were recruited to the area to work under large companies contracted by the federal government. We speak with Newsday reporter Tina Susman, who has investigated the case of a group of homeless men, and Bill Chandler, about subcontractors and workers’ complaints. [includes rush transcript]
In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina whipped the Gulf Coast region, companies like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root–a Halliburton subsidiary–and EEC Operating Services were given huge contracts by the federal government to clean up hurricane debris and start rebuilding the area. Undocumented immigrants and other economically marginalized people were lured to the region by promises of work and good pay. But it turns out that many of those workers have never been paid and have little recourse in collecting their promised checks. Some undocumented workers were even threatened with deportation when they demanded their pay.
An article on Salon.com stated that the problem is "a shadowy labyrinth of contractors, subcontractors and job brokers, overseen by no single agency, that have created a no man’s land where nobody seems to be accountable for the hiring-and abuse of these workers."
- Tina Susman, a reporter for Newsday. She followed the case of a group of homeless men from Atlanta who went to New Orleans to work and never got paid.
- Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. Their group has filed complaints against five subcontractors in the Gulfport region on behalf of workers who weren’t paid for the cleanup that they did.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in our studio by Tina Susman, reporter for Newsday. She’s followed the case of a group of homeless men from Atlanta, who went to New Orleans to work and never got paid. We’re also joined on the phone by Bill Chandler, President of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. Their group has filed complaints against five sub-contractors in the Gulfport region on behalf of workers who weren’t paid for the cleanup they did. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Bill Chandler of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. Can you talk about the case of these immigrants?
BILL CHANDLER: Well, as you stated, a large number of workers were recruited here from all over the country, mainly immigrants and many of them undocumented. And contractors, who we call the "bottom feeders" — in other words, for example, a primary contractor like Halliburton or Bechtel receives a contract from FEMA to clean up the debris on the coast for about $24 a cubic yard. It is then sub-contracted down through a whole food chain of subcontractors to the bottom feeders, and in most instances, we found that they’re getting around $4 a cubic yard. And those are the contractors that have been brought in and brought in immigrants to do the work.
In many cases, not only the five contractors that we have filed complaints against on behalf of several hundred workers, but a large number more have used all kinds of devices to get out of paying their workers. One, they’ll just simply abandon them at a work site after recruiting them here with promises of housing and per diem and decent pay and so on, and they will leave those workers there. We found a group of thirty workers who were abandoned by a contractor in a remote trailer park. They were housed in three trailers, and there was no electricity, no furniture, no nothing, except for water, which at that time was contaminated in Gulfport. And they had been abandoned and not paid. And when we found them, they had gone three days without food. Needless to say we were able to round up food and bedding for those workers, and eventually we found them shelter in faith-based organizations’ facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: Tina Susman, you recently went down to New Orleans. What did you find?
TINA SUSMAN: Well, the workers that I encountered were men who had been recruited from a homeless shelter in Atlanta. There was several dozen of them. I actually met them at a tent city that had sprung up there that was housing people who had nowhere to live. Individually they started coming up to me and all told me the same story, being recruited by a gentleman who promised them, you know, good hourly wages doing hard labor, hauling debris, for the most part, some construction work in New Orleans. They got on this school bus that was provided. They came down, and most of them had worked several weeks, and each week when they asked for their pay, they were told, "It’s coming. It’s coming." Eventually they got fed up and they left. I went to the house where they said that they had all been put in rather undesirable conditions, thirty or so men to the house. And there were more men there. They all told me the same story.
The big problem with these men was just finding out who was actually supposed to pay them. Their assumption, of course, was that the man who had recruited them and promised them the pay should pay them. However when they asked him for the money, he said, "Well, I can’t pay you because the company that recruited me hasn’t paid me." So I spoke to that company, and it said, "Well, the company that’s supposed to pay us hasn’t paid us, so we can’t pay them." I followed this all the way up the chain, and that is where the problem lies, with the number of subcontractors that are doing business in the Gulf region. A gentleman from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers I spoke to said, "It’s not unusual to have fifty subcontractors working beneath the prime contractors."
AMY GOODMAN: And who are these prime contractors?
TINA SUSMAN: Well, there are several. In the case that I followed, the prime contractor is ECC out of Burlingame, California. It has about a $500 million contract with the Army Corps of Engineers.
AMY GOODMAN: How much?
TINA SUSMAN: $500 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Half a billion dollars?
TINA SUSMAN: Yes, and that’s not unusual. There are several prime contractors, and these are contractors, as you mentioned — Halliburton is another — who are frequently given contracts by the federal government in cases such as this, and then it’s understood that they are, therefore, going to hire subcontractors who will then hires subs and subs and subs. The problem begins when there is a glitch somewhere along the way. All it takes is one delay in payment; all it takes is one person somewhere on the chain to pocket their money, and it all ripples down. And the end result in every case, of course, is that the guys at the bottom, the bit players, don’t get paid.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I think that students have taught us a lot about holding the primary contractor accountable in the organization, students against sweat shops around the country. They say that it’s not enough to say, 'Well we didn't know that a sub subcontractor was not paying the workers fairly,’ that ultimately it is the responsibility of the primary contractor. Is this — are they being held at all accountable?
TINA SUSMAN: No, not really. I mean, if you speak to them, they do say that once they put out their subcontracts, there is really little that they can do to enforce what those businesses themselves are doing. The expectation is that any business that gets involved in this kind of thing is going to have the financial resources to pay its workers, no matter what level they are on the chain. Who is holding the prime contractors responsible, of course, is the people who actually are able to trace the money trail all the way to the top, which is extraordinarily difficult. In this case that I followed, this group of Atlanta workers finally did trace it all the way to the top, and they actually went to the ECC office in New Orleans and complained, and they were given some money, but the ECC people there explained that they had paid their subcontractors; therefore, there was a limit as to what more they could do.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Chandler, what about that issue of holding the top company responsible? Looking at the Salon piece, it talks about KBR security chief, Kevin Flynn, and it says, "Representatives of Halliburton/KBR do not acknowledge the existence of undocumented workers providing labor for their operations on the Gulf Coast bases. Flynn suggested speaking to the U.S. military, who he said 'has real strict control' and would know whether there were undocumented workers. He said, 'We have workers from all ethnic groups on the base. To the best of my knowledge, there are no undocumented workers.'"
BILL CHANDLER: Well, first of all, you know, from our point of view in Mississippi, from our group’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether they’re documented or undocumented, the issue is getting paid for the work that they were promised to be paid for. The problem is that there appears to be no oversight in this contract process, and when you look at the difference between $24 and $4, and you multiply it by tens of thousands of cubic yards, something is happening between the primary contractor and those that are actually performing the work, and that’s a tremendous loss of money that’s involved in subcontracting and paper shuffling that goes on with these contractors. It is amazing to me that so many contractors actually don’t do the work, but they get paid for work that they don’t do.
AMY GOODMAN: When we were down in the New Orleans area, we went to one of the large areas set up by the Red Cross that had thousands of pets and also 1,000 evacuees, and the Red Cross ran the whole facility, working with the National Guard and other military. And it was in a place called Gonzales, right outside of New Orleans, on the way to New Orleans. When we wanted to talk to people at the facility, at the shelter, the Red Cross called in the military to tell us to leave, even though those inside of the facility wanted to talk to us. What about the Red Cross in dealing with both workers, immigrants, and overall the evacuee population?
BILL CHANDLER: We have had some very, very serious problems with very overt racism on the part of the Red Cross, not only with immigrants, but with other people that were displaced by Katrina, as well. But with immigrants, initially in the application process for benefits, we had a considerable problem in Hadleyburg and in Laurel with people asking for too much information, going, you know, beyond what is required by the Red Cross to certify people for eligibility, and they were asking for documents, they were asking for all kind of things that was irrelevant to their victimization.
We had a situation where undocumented or documented immigrants who had been living on the coast, and I think people need to know that Mississippi has a rapidly growing immigrant population, and we estimate that over 100,000 people are here working. But on the coast there’s about 30,000 and of that there were a lot of people that were affected by Katrina. And like the Anglos and like the African Americans and Vietnamese, and so on, they were seeking shelter with the Red Cross. We had an incident late in September where the shelter manager in Long Beach decided he didn’t want any of the Latinos to be there, and he called a number of law enforcement agencies, ranging from the Indiana State Police, who were here to supplement local law enforcement, to the ICE, which is the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement which we commonly know as "La Migra" or the INS, what used to be the INS, and had them come, and they pulled the Latinos out of the shelter. Several people were pulled out of showers and were not allowed to wrap themselves in towels, and were pulled into the parking lot and told that they would be deported in 48 hours if they didn’t leave the shelter immediately.
Following that, an organizer from our organization went to confront the shelter manager about that that night, and she was escorted from the premises by armed security. The next day, a delegation that included people from the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Oxfam America and a number of other organizations, primarily African Americans, went to confront the manager about what had happened, and they were taking pictures, and the shelter manager wanted the camera and wanted the film and the people, of course, refused to give it to him. And so they were held hostage by local law enforcement for about 45 minutes, were not allowed to leave the shelter until they produced the film, which they refused. And finally U.S. Marshals came and advised the shelter manager to let them go, that they did have a right to take pictures.
But later on, a few days later, the shelters all over the coast were demanding that Latinos leave the shelters, and they claim that they were all out-of-state workers and they had no right to be in the shelters. The National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Law Center and other organizations alerted the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Representative Grace Napolitano, who is the chair of that, confronted the Red Cross. They denied those things were going on and said their policy is to take anybody who is homeless. But it never filtered down to the shelters here, and ultimately they evacuated all of the Latinos, regardless of status, regardless of where they lived before the hurricane, out of those shelters. So we have had some very serious problems with the Red Cross, and it is consistent with previous experience that we’ve had with them in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: Tina Susman, final comment?
TINA SUSMAN: Yes, actually, I was also told by some of the gentlemen that I got to know down in New Orleans, the men from Atlanta, that when they realized they weren’t going to get paid and they were looking for a place to stay, they tried to get in with some of these shelters and were told that because they weren’t from the area, they were not allowed to stay in those shelters. But one thing that all of the labor advocates I interviewed did say is that this kind of thing happens all the time. The difference is, it has been magnified 100 times over now because of the need for labor in the Gulf, because of the number of businesses that are looking for workers, and because there are so many willing workers, be they homeless, be they undocumented, what have you, who are eager for a chance to make some money. In addition, when you have so many workers flooding in and so many businesses basically looking, you know, to make some money off of this disaster cleanup, the kind of vetting that should go on over these subcontractors simply doesn’t. It is just not as close as it should be, and so that opens the door to much greater abuse than one might normally see.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tina Susman and Bill Chandler, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Tina Susman is National Correspondent for Newsday, has covered disasters from Sri Lanka in the tsunami to Southern Africa and has spent time in New Orleans. Bill Chandler, President of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, long-time union organizer, speaking to us from Jackson, Mississippi.